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Understanding the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests

Being cybersecurity professionals, we hear companies stating time and time again that they’ve had a Penetration Test only to find out through more in-depth conversation they in fact had a Vulnerability Assessment. Why do so many companies get these two security measures confused? Perhaps you thought you were sold a Penetration Test, but you received a Vulnerability Scan instead. How can your company differentiate between a Penetration Test and a Vulnerability Assessment? Which service will best meet your security needs? To answer these critical questions, first, you must understand what each service actually consists of and how they differ from one another. TechGuard offers both Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests. Contact us to find out which solution(s) best suit your needs.


Vulnerability Assessments

A Vulnerability Assessment is a service that uses software to scan an IP address or a range of IP addresses for known vulnerabilities. It is the testing process used to identify, quantify and rank security vulnerabilities in a computing environment. This process involves automated and manual techniques with varying degrees of rigor and emphasis on the different layers of technology, most common being host-network and application-layer assessments. After a Vulnerability Assessment, you will be aware of any vulnerabilities in your computing environment, allowing you to secure critical IT assets and quickly mitigate potential threats. In addition, Vulnerability Assessments can alert network defenders when the environment undergoes any unauthorized changes.

Due to costs, typically determined by the number of IPs in scope, Vulnerability Assessments are often performed more frequently than Penetration Tests. Vulnerability Assessments can be performed internally or externally, and it is best practice to have one done after new equipment is loaded or the network undergoes major changes. Then, after performing the assessment, a report of findings is generated and delivered. Vulnerability reports should include a list of discovered vulnerabilities, suggestions for remediation, and any changes since the last scan.


Penetration Tests

A Penetration Test, or Pen Test, is the process of identifying security gaps in your IT infrastructure by mimicking a real-world attacker. Pen Testing typically falls within three categories: Black Box, Gray Box, and White Box. Black Box testing provides the tester with virtually no information about the target system. Gray Box testing typically involves a minimum amount of system information including, user-level credentials. White Box requires the tester have full access and explicit knowledge of the target system. Like Vulnerability Assessments, Pen Tests can be performed both internally and externally and are designed to provide vital insight into the security posture of your network.

Although a Vulnerability Assessment can be automated, Penetration Tests require various levels of expertise. Penetration Tests reveal the weaknesses that exist in the company’s security posture, what information could be at risk of being exposed due to those weaknesses, and the extent of damage that could take place based on the weaknesses if a hacker were to exploit them. Some examples of found security flaws may include password characteristics and usage, password storage, and forgotten databases storing valid user credentials. Penetration Tests are also recommended any time equipment connected to your network changes and they should be conducted by a third party so that the organization receives an objective view.


Recognize the Difference

Even though some organizations use the terms Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests interchangeably, they are very different. Remember, a Vulnerability Assessment cannot exploit the weaknesses found to prove the extent of potential consequences. Fundamentally, Vulnerability Assessments are automated evaluations of your network meant to identify, quantify, and rank vulnerabilities based on their level of risk. Penetration Tests, however, are manual engagements in which an ethical hacker actively attempts to break into your network and exploit any vulnerabilities. This insight will show you exactly where your organization needs to beef up security.


How to Use Them Together

Both Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests are often performed remotely. Many businesses will purchase different versions of both services to stretch their cybersecurity budgets. For example, some organizations opt for an external Penetration Test (often, there are fewer external IP addresses than internal IP addresses) and an internal Vulnerability Assessment.

One easy way to look at internal vs. external IP addresses is to think of the IP addresses a bank uses. All the employees typically have an internal IP address that they work from. Now consider the places customers can access the bank’s data. They can log into the bank website. The website will have its own external IP address. Various regulation standards and compliances impose mandates requiring various Vulnerability Assessments or Penetration Tests however, these mandates are the bare minimum security measures and do not necessarily provide adequate protection to your company’s assets.

Vulnerability Assessments are often more budget-friendly than Penetration Tests and both tools will provide an awareness of the vulnerabilities. The Vulnerability Assessment report is typically much lengthier and will rank the vulnerabilities based on priority with suggestions for remediation. The Penetration Test typically provides a shorter list explaining the most important findings, the extent of the damage that could occur from exploitation, and how to remediate them.



In a perfectly secure world, your company will have frequent Vulnerability Assessments backed up by Penetration Tests. Vulnerability Assessments alone lack the human touch. Penetration Tests use an ethical hacker to see what they can exploit using the found vulnerabilities. Understanding your security posture will help you protect private information and close any gaps that attackers could exploit. TechGuard Security offers Vulnerability Assessments, Penetration Testing, and many other valuable cybersecurity services. If you are interested in receiving a custom plan for cybersecurity maturity that fits your needs, contact us today.

Written by TGS Author